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Ma' Silvia Says

The Stonewall that started it all
So, you're gay, right? Right. We agree.

What does that mean? At a basic level, it means you are a minority in the United States. It means you are sensitive to gender roles. It means that you have the privilege of understanding difference.

Being gay, quite obviously, also means that you have a very personal connection to the history of a people who have faced ridicule, violence, and death on the path toward free personal expression. Walking through the streets of New York City's Greenwich Village and passing beneath storefront after storefront with huge displays of gay pride flags, it is easy to forget that the gay community in the U.S. used to be a closeted and very much ignored social undercurrent of American culture.

The renovated and reopened Stonewall bar is a far cry from its days of violence and uproar when it gave birth to the gay rights movement
At the end of March 2001, on your walk through Greenwich Village, you step into Gecko's Antique Store. The jingle of wind chimes announces your arrival. A few feet ahead of you sits Sylvia Rivera, the president of a grass-roots organization called STAR (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries), and a pioneer of the gay rights movement in the 70s.

Below a canopy of umbrella-shaped stained glass lamps, Sylvia looks up from the repair of an antiquated light fixture and waves for you to sit down next to her while she continues her work. As you scoot up next to her on a step stool, she tells you that this area of town used to be very different.

Gay Street...'nuff said
As a 17-year-old transgender street kid, Sylvia was on the battlefront of the civil rights movement in New York City in the 1960s. Social revolution was in the air and she, along with a lot of the gay community, was struggling for black civil liberties. She nods her head back and forth and says, "I was always fighting for other people."

"When is my day going to come?" she would ask herself, doubting it ever would. Gays, lesbians, and transgender men and women had no voice in the 1960s. If gay men or women walked down the street together, they were arrested. Police officers pretended to be homosexual, made sexual innuendoes, and were promiscuous in order to invite gay men and women out of their closets and then handcuff them and put them in jail.

Cart wheeling through the streets of NYC's Greenwich Village, a.k.a. Gay, USA
Police raids on gay bars happened weekly. Bartenders and patrons had to work out codes of communication to avoid hefty city fines and arrest. If someone suspected that a police officer was approaching, a bartender would be signaled to flip a safety switch to turn on all of the lights in the bar. The patrons would then stop dancing or congregating with the same sex, place all of the bar tables in straight lines, and pretend to be involved in casual conversations with their straight 'boyfriends' or 'girlfriends'.

For the transgender community, police raids were an exceptional threat. If one was not wearing at least three garments considered appropriate for his/her sexual anatomy, he/she faced up to a year in prison for impersonating the opposite sex.

Stonewall Square is now lined with gay pride flags, proof that times have changed for today's gay/lesbian/transgender community
In late June 1969, Inspector Pine of the NYPD raided the Stonewall Bar with a group of men he called his "Moral Squad." Men were asked to line up in one area, women in another, and 'freaks' (a.k.a., Sylvia, drag queens and other street kids) in another. That night, the Stonewall Bar patrons became infuriated with the police's increasingly rough treatment and violent language.

Patrons started to throw loose change at the cops. They screamed at them to take their pay-offs and leave them alone. The "nasty situation," as Sylvia refers to it, soon erupted into full-fledged violence. "One drag queen threw a punch," says Sylvia, and the next thing they knew "the cops had barricaded themselves inside of the bar" and there was rioting in the streets. Police officers from all over the city were called in to quell the Stonewall Riots, which lasted for six more days.

Sylvia folds the cord to the light fixture she is working on and says that first night at Stonewall "was a night to remember." "People got smacked down and then got back up for more," she says. They were fighting for their rights as gay citizens. Finally, in 1969, Sylvia's revolution had come and the gay rights movement was born.

Stonewall veteran, Tree, is just that - a 'tree' of life experience for a knowledge hungry trekker
"The Stonewall Riots were a big liberating factor in my life," Sylvia remembers. "Only days after the riots, we could walk down the streets arm in arm in the middle of daylight. It was amazing and beautiful to see ourselves moving about without fear."

Within days of the Stonewall Riots, veterans of the uprising and their supporters organized the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in order to keep the passion of resistance alive within the city's gay/lesbian/transgender community. Chapters soon sprung up across the country as far west as San Francisco, California. The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee sprung into action, too. Its goals were to organize an annual parade to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. Today, gay pride parades are in cities across the globe and are still some of the largest peaceful demonstrations in the U.S.

Kids who listen to her stories about action and protest gave her the name 'Ma' Sylvia'. Ma' Sylvia and Stephen radiate faith despite the history of struggle that still effects today's transgender community
"What I see now, thirty-two years later," Sylvia admits, "is that gay people have acquired a lot of freedom, but my community has not changed." When all of this began, there was a unified community fighting for everyone -- gay, lesbian, and transgender -- but Sylvia has observed that over time the movement has become somewhat divided.

Though she was at the center of the Stonewall Riots, Sylvia remembers having to fight her way on to stage to speak at gay pride parades. A gay activist once kicked her in the chest because parade sponsors did not want to give the transgender community a vocal presence there. "I think most people, even in the gay community, are still embarrassed by us," she admits.

"Gay rights bills have been passed all over the country," Sylvia continues, "but they are all based on sexual orientation, not on gender identity." Transgender men and women still have no legal right to fight against discrimination in jobs, housing, and education. For that reason, they are often forced into homelessness and into becoming sex workers to survive. Sylvia believes "we are still riding the back of the bumper of the bus because nothing is written in stone."

The spirit of Stonewall inspired the development of contemporary gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign.  Does the HRC fight for the human rights of all Stonewall veterans, though?
"People forget that it was the street kids and drag queens at Stonewall that started this movement. If it were not for us, most of the gay community would still be in the closet." Sylvia explains that it is upsetting to her that so many people celebrate the accomplishments of the gay rights movement when transgender youth are still being killed in the streets of this city.

"Everyone knew about Mathew Shepherd," she says, "because he was a white university student in the Midwest. But not many people have even heard of Amanda Milan." Amanda was a young, black transgender woman who was stabbed to death in the streets near New York City's Time Square in summer of 2000.

If it weren't for the efforts of the city's transgender community and the vocal, direct action techniques of Sylvia's organization, STAR, Amanda would have been yet another murdered transgender youth buried in the streets of New York City. The effort that is still being put behind the campaign against Amanda's murder suggests to Sylvia that the lack of support for the transgender community means that "we are less important."

A customer walks in from the street, and as you stare at him looking up at the hanging antique lamps, Ma' Sylvia tells you, "we started to pave the road at Stonewall, but we have to finish it in harmony." We have to unite again, you suppose.

There is no way you can believe that Sylvia, one of the people who has made it easier for you to face yourself, is unimportant in the eyes of the law. Today, you can say that you are gay and walk down the street without being arrested, but until Sylvia and her transgender community are at the forefront of the gay rights movement like they were at Stonewall, you know that your personal liberty has a price.


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


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